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Why elevating our media is crucial to powering Asia’s online creative economy

This is an edited version of the original article, first published here. The author, Daylon Soh, is the design founder of CuriousCatch, which helps independent artist and crafters sell creative products through its online video shopping channel.

Artwork by Brian from BRICK.sg

Terence, SGE‘s assistant editor, recently wrote an interesting article on “The rise of platformed creativity in Asia and how it’s connecting creators to consumers”. In brief, he touched on the increasing availability of online platforms/marketplaces where creative goods and services can be exchanged.

Many of the mentioned startups, including our own online store CuriousCatch.com, are fairly new channels that are reinventing (or replicating) what  overseas counterparts are doing. These overseas sites include Fab, Etsy and Kickstarter, which are more established and well-funded than most of us.

Since our announced launch in 31 July, this year, we’ve been getting a variety of feedback and suggestions from our customers and personally I’ve come to learn more about how the local market consumes creative goods and services as compared to a market like the U.S. or China.

There’s also much to learn from studying brick and mortar set-ups in the same space, including multi-label boutiques and flea markets. Expanding on what Terence has shared, I hope to explore what are the pre-conditions necessary for the success of platformed creativity in Asia, particularly Singapore.

The Big Apple as a role model for Asia’s creative entrepreneurs

A New Yorker consumes differently as compared to a Singaporean.

A friend shared a fascinating story of how he’s able to build film sets cheaply as a film student from scavenging the more well-to-do parts of the city. He’s found fairly new furniture like that’s dumped on the streets, even though it’s probably been used for only 3 to 6 months. These households consist of mainly working professionals with ready disposable income. They are used to the idea of online transactions and fast domestic shipping from dominant eCommerce players like Amazon.com.

Many design-centric tech companies, like Fab, Etsy and Kickstarter, are based in New York City,  which for the last few decades has been a haven for artists like Andy Warhol, singers like Bob Dylan and advertising agencies from Madison Avenue, well-portrayed by the drama series Mad Men.

Every year, thousands of eager students from around the world world attend some of the very best arts schools in the nation: from the New York Academy of the Dramatic Arts (NYADA) to Parsons New School of Design. Some will find fame in Broadway and a few will be honored by the prestigious Art Directors Club.

An equally eager and enthusiastic crowd of 2.5 million visitors will come to tour the aisles of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) annually, including shopping at the renowned MoMA Store, which supports local and international industrial designers (e.g. Japanese retailer, MUJI).

And earlier this year, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg  initiated a campaign to grow its budding technology scene. According to Mashable, it is currently the second-highest ranked city after Silicon Valley in the US for attracting venture capital dollars.

New York is a media powehouse too, from the widely read International Herald Tribune to the fashion bible VOGUE magazine. The city’s media conglomerates include Time Warner, News Corporation and Viacom.

Perhaps New York can be best described as a hot bed of great ideas fueled by the media and led by generations of creative pioneers.

Whoever controls the media…

In short, New York is what cities in Asia can hope to be in the next few decades in the creative + tech disciplines. The toughest challenge will be working on our culture and our media’s ability to disseminate ideas to the rest of Asia in English; the de facto language to do business.

With the shift in media consumption patterns, the Internet has allowed many online media outlets to start from a clean slate to disrupt the incumbents. Here’s an opportunity for journalist and writers to create world-class content on the internet and we’re already later than our American counterparts.

I personally think the work of Singapore’s technology publications like TechinAsia, e27 and SGE are important as their success would mean that future technology startups in Singapore can disseminate information at a regional level and gain a head start. I’m heartened that many are working on multi-lingual dissemination and local partnerships with regional markets to grow their readership base.

Online media in the region is now a mad land grab and those who have the lion’s share will influence the next generation of consumers. It would be silly for any venture capitalist to miss out on the opportunity to back a growing internet media outlet with such aspirations. So who’s backing the next Wall Street Journal and Monocle?

Asians are brand-centric but not design-centric

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. ~John F. Kennedy

Singapore is hardly ever known as a creative city due to its tough censorship and media-related laws. Local artists have to struggle to find balance between freedom of expression and civil obedience. Historically, many local talents are either lured by more lucrative careers in service and finance industries or they have to take their talents elsewhere.

But the scene is changing with internationally acclaimed institutions like Hyper Island and events like CreativeMornings/Singapore (disclaimer: I am an organizer of this event) bringing together foreign talents and local creatives. The Singapore government is also lending more financial support and creating the necessary infrastructure for a creative culture to thrive.

Presently though, we’re also faced with a less design savvy market as compared to our East Asian neighbors like Japan and South Korea. This means that many design-oriented startups will have to educate the market and wait for a growing middle class with higher disposable incomes who may come to appreciate the value of design.

It’s baffling why consumers wouldn’t mind spending several months of their pay checks on branded goods but insist on bargaining for handicrafts at flea markets. Or as a local doctor would have put it, consumers here are willing to spend their fortunes on cosmetic surgery but will complain about high clinical consultation fees for flu and fever.

Solutions for a creative economy

Make no mistake, the emergence of platformed creativity in sheer numbers is not representative of a viable market ready to consume creative goods and services at scale. It’s simply an indication that willing and passionate entrepreneurs are out there and ready to make a change in the creative and technology scene.

Those who are here for the long run and are committed to educate local and regional consumers will learn to build a sizable (and perhaps loyal) following. Startups now have access to popular internet media channels, and this will shorten our go-to-market cycles and free talents from bad ideas so they can work on better ones.

The next 5 years will be an interesting for entrepreneurs blending creativity and tech. Especially when we’re witnessing an influx of foreign talents assimilating to the local culture and participating in creative projects that will push the bar for all creative disciplines from fashion to film.

The media players here will have to think bigger and scale abroad too. America was the first to dominate as a soft power after the war. In the last two decades, our East Asian neighbors had a head-start with South Korean and Japanese culture assimilating into global music and film. Today, China is catching up fast. Their sheer number in talent creates exportable content that will help solidify their position as a future soft power.

Consumer startups cannot afford to stay under the radar and that is why mainstream media will play a pivotal role in lifting all technology startups in Southeast Asia. Look at the growth and incubation period of Etsy and Kickstarter below.

For every success story we know of, there are plenty of unknowns we’ve yet to hear about from the news. Yet the media continues to propel the growth of Etsy and Kickstarter.

Parts of the puzzle are still missing for Asian entrepreneurs hoping to capture the hearts of regional consumers. Yet, exploring the unknown is what makes the work of a pioneer is exciting: we get to set the rules while disrupting and consolidating markets.



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